Caroline Porter reflects on serving Knox County

By Karen S. Lynch

The Zephyr, Galesburg


   A silver spoon slowly stirred inside the cup of steaming hot chocolate, topped with a puff of whipped cream. The aroma of fresh coffee beans permeated the air, interspersing with the smells of a multitude of desserts. Decadent chocolates beckoned a few feet away amidst gifts and festive holiday decorations. Next to the black leather seating arranged in front of a fireplace, a collection of Tiffany-style lamps was reflecting a Crayola box of colors from the interior illumination.

   Caroline Porter sat across a table from me inside Innkeepers Fresh Roasted Coffee on a blustery November day. The cold wind seemed more like a hot chocolate type-of-day for our “coffee” meeting. I arranged an interview to discuss Porter’s experience on the Knox County Board and accomplishments she saw during four decades of service.

   The whirling hiss of the coffee machinery behind the counter never seemed to stop on a busy Friday afternoon. Porter placed the spoon on the saucer beside the cup and took another sip of the hot drink. “I like whipped cream on mine,” she remarked, seeing the cup I had lacked the extra decoration. I did not explain why I take mine plain, as I began to ask a few questions between sips. The question I really wanted to ask her I saved for last.   

   Porter announced on the final filing day for the February 5 primary she would not run for another term on the Knox County Board. She said she made the decision not to run for another term the day before the filing deadline. There had been conflicts reported in the news between Porter and a few other county board members.

   Bringing focus on an issue with committee per diems before a board vote, Porter said, “It was wrong and everyone knew it was wrong because it broke the county board rules. It was hard on me, even though the entire board ended up voting with me.” Porter praised Chairman Allen Pickrel for doing something about the issue. “I let him know I appreciated it.”

   After serving the county board during three different periods, beginning with a term between the years of 1973 to 1977 and again between 1992 and 1996, Porter ran for State Representative against Don Moffitt, in 1996. Elected most recently in 2004, Porter will end her Knox County Board term in 2008.

   “Some people have often asked me why I do what I do. To them, it would be a nightmare to run for public office and become involved in public issues and the battles. Some people like to knit. Politics is my hobby.” Porter said several people told her they are disappointed with her decision not to run for another term.

   Caroline Porter has an impressive resume, winning many awards in her literary and political careers. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Knox College in 1958 and a political science major in 1973, also earning a Master of Arts degree in Political Science in 2007 from Western Illinois University.

   Porter is also a newspaper columnist, writing “In My Opinion” publishing a book of her columns, “As Life Gets Funnier” about life after 50, featured in Senior Life & Leisure magazine. She has written features articles, including photography, in newspapers, The Zephyr, Quad City Times and Rock Island Argus. Porter just received a job teaching State and Local Government at Blackhawk East College in Kewanee.

   Awards Porter has received include Illinois Women’s Press Association, National Federation of Press Women, and several in the Illinois Press Association. Named “Knox County Democrat Woman of the Year” in 2004 and “Rotary International Paul Harris Fellow” in 1998 were additional honors during her long political career. Porter was a sole proprietor of public relations and marketing, “Caroline Porter IDEAS” from 1989 to 2001, as well as her freelance writing business.

   Porter grew up in a very political family in Kewanee. Her attorney father was Chairman of the Henry County Democrats in the forties. Her mother was a charter member of the Kewanee League of Women Voters and went on to become President of the Illinois League of Women Voters. Her brother has a PHD in political science, teaching at Ohio State University, was the first Legislative Intern in the State of Illinois. “I am the only one in my immediate family to run for office.” Porter was the first woman elected to the Knox County Board in 1973.

  The Knox County Board has been in the news frequently this past year with internal conflicts between several board members including the vote for Chairman and per diems for committee assignments. Porter was in the forefront of those conflicts, trying to focus on issues she felt needed attention.

   “I’m not afraid of standing up for things and speaking out. My most difficult time was the per diems. I was the only one who would talk about it. I knew other board members agreed with me but they wouldn’t say anything. Sometimes I feel like I am twisting in the wind on an issue I know is right.” The entire board ended up voting with Porter’s position on the per diems.

   However, Porter was quick to add she had many positive experiences with the Knox County Board. “This county board is more willing to tackle new things and do things differently than any other board I have been involved in. Despite all the controversy, which is usually emphasized in the media, there are a lot of good things that are being accomplished every day.”

   The list of accomplishments while Porter has served on the board is a long one. Working to equalize tax assessments in 1973, “The townships outside of Galesburg were very unequally taxed with each township assessor doing their own thing. The rural board members particularly, were not very happy with my position at the time.”

   The establishment of the Knox County Health Department was long in the making, but has become an effective asset to the community. Porter also worked to reduce the size of the county board. Knox County, with a $39 million budget has seen increases in development of enterprise accounts, including the Mary Davis Home, Knox County Nursing Home, and Knox County Landfill. Porter pointed to the wonderful job landfill engineer, Larry Laron, Director of Solid Waste, did in quickly getting required state reports done by the deadline when he was first hired. She praised the success he has had managing the county landfill and its surplus budget. Laron is now retired.

   Porter still has goals she would like to see the board achieve. “In three years, I have not been able to get the county board to turn around and face the audience. We sit with our backs to the audience and they can’t hear half of what we say. The board keeps saying they can’t meet anywhere but the County Courthouse, but the fact is they can – it just has to be in a public building.”

   Future goals on Porter’s last campaign brochure include more responsibility, including a county administrator with central purchasing. Other goals are modernizing the Knox County Nursing Home to meet code standards with the necessary funds, elimination of the committee system and supporting economic development with fiscal responsibility. Porter is currently working on placing a referendum on the November 2008 ballot to have the Knox County Board Chairman elected directly by the people.

   A list of Porter’s lifetime accomplishments is longer than the lines waiting for their choice of hot drinks inside Innkeepers on a cold day. Services include Knox County Board committees on finance, Mary Davis Home, Knox County Landfill, legislative and study, land use, highway, courthouse insurance, and sewage systems.

   Other areas Porter served are the Board of Review, Chairman of the Knox County Democratic Central Committee, Precinct Committeeman for 30 years, Knox County Blue Ribbon Committee, Deputy County Clerk, and League of Women Voters of Illinois. Also serving on the Cardinal Community Manor, Inc (Alexis), Galesburg Downtown Village Council, Chair of Galesburg Human Relations Commission, Illinois Committee for Modern Courts, and Mayor’s Public Safety Building Task Force in Rockford.

   Caroline Porter has had a very illustrious career in both public and political service over four decades. She is not short on lifetime accomplishments and leadership roles, for which she should be proud. Her replacement on the board could have some big shoes to fill, even if those shoes are a pair of woman’s heels.